These simple tips will help a child who is distracted, inattentive, or having problems focusing on his or her school work. They are also useful for any child and can even prevent inattentiveness in an ever-more-distracting world.
- Keep a calm home environment. This means not yelling at your child if he doesn’t mind you or settle down to do his homework. Of course, every parent can be pushed to the extreme and “loses it” occasionally. If you do find yourself screaming, simply apologize to your child and reassure him that you love him while explaining that his behavior is sometimes frustrating.
- Limit media distractions in your home. Many children are not as good at filtering out noise as adults are. This means that having the television on while your child is trying to do her homework may interfere with her ability to concentrate. Limit your child to one hour of “screen time” per day, including television, electronic games, and other forms of eye candy. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that early exposure to television is associated with a diagnosis of ADHD in children. They also recommend that parents not put a television set in the child’s room and that you keep the home’s TV turned off when you are not watching a specific program. You can find additional AAP recommendations on children and media here.
- Have your child’s vision and hearing tested. If your child suddenly starts to have trouble at school, take him to the pediatrician for a vision and hearing test. Sometimes a child is not able to express that he is having trouble seeing or hearing clearly. Several times in my experience, a child’s teacher thought he might have serious attention issues when the real problem was nearsightedness.
- Stay positive in your child’s presence. Don’t argue with your spouse or partner when your child is around. Surprisingly, children worry about their parents just as much as their parents worry about them. Hearing parents argue or even talk in loud voices can be scary to a child. Even if the arguments are not serious, to a child’s vivid imagination arguments might signify that her parents are headed for a divorce. Tell your child only the good things in your life, and keep the arguments for when the child is not present. Even if your child is in the other room, she can still hear your tone of voice and pick up on angry feelings. Remember, “little pitchers have big ears.” To air out the differences that inevitably occur in every marriage or partnership, parents should think about having lunch together or taking a walk together without the kids to have their disagreements and clear the air.
- Be “in the moment” with your child at least once every day. Find a few minutes each day when you can focus 100% of your attention on your child: Read him a book, play a short board game, or make a drawing or a painting together. If you prefer outdoor games, go to the park and play basketball or tennis with your child. Turn off your smartphone, computer, and TV to avoid distractions.
- Set clear rules and enforce them consistently. Parents should come to an agreement about the rules and consequences concerning their child and back each other up. Being on the same page about discipline is especially crucial if a child is having trouble focusing. When parents ask me about a good book on discipline, I always recommend 1-2-3 Magic: 3-Step Discipline for Calm, Effective, and Happy Parenting by Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D. His method really works, especially for younger children.
- Enroll your child in a sport to channel her extra energy. If your child is “hyper,” she may need more outlets for her energy. Remember, Olympic gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps had trouble focusing in the classroom and was diagnosed with ADHD. After being on medication for four years, Phelps decided that the medication was an unnecessary crutch. With the help and support of his doctor, he weaned himself off it at age 13. Phelps learned to control his inattentiveness at school by using the power of his mind and found a wholesome outlet for his extra energy in competitive swimming.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.